Just weeks ago, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security
adviser, made a trip to the Middle East that was widely seen as advancing
the peace process. There was speculation that she would be a likely choice
for secretary of state, and hopes among Republicans that she could become
governor of California and even, someday, president.
But she has since become enmeshed in the controversy over the administration's
use of intelligence about Iraq's weapons in the run-up to war. She has
been made to appear out of the loop by colleagues' claims that she did
not read or recall vital pieces of intelligence. And she has made statements
about U.S. intelligence on Iraq that have been contradicted by facts that
The remarks by Rice and her associates raise two uncomfortable possibilities
for the national security adviser. Either she missed or overlooked numerous
warnings from intelligence agencies seeking to put caveats on claims about
Iraq's nuclear weapons program, or she made public claims that she knew
to be false.
Most prominent is her claim that the White House had not heard about CIA
doubts about an allegation that Iraq sought uranium in Africa before the
charge landed in Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 28; in fact,
her National Security Council staff received two memos doubting the claim
and a phone call from CIA Director George J. Tenet months before the speech.
Various other of Rice's public characterizations of intelligence documents
and agencies' positions have been similarly cast into doubt.
"If Condi didn't know the exact state of intel on Saddam's nuclear
programs . . . she wasn't doing her job," said Brookings Institution
foreign policy specialist Michael E. O'Hanlon. "This was foreign
policy priority number one for the administration last summer, so the
claim that someone else should have done her homework for her is unconvincing."
Rice declined to be interviewed for this article. NSC officials said each
of Rice's public statements is accurate. "It was and is the judgment
of the intelligence community that Saddam Hussein was attempting to reconstitute
his nuclear weapons program," said Michael Anton, an NSC spokesman.
Still, a person close to Rice said that she has been dismayed by the effect
on Bush. "She knows she did badly by him, and he knows that she knows
it," this person said.
In the White House briefing room on July 18, a senior administration official,
speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Rice did not
read October's National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the definitive
prewar assessment of Iraq's weapons programs by U.S. intelligence agencies.
"We have experts who work for the national security adviser who would
know this information," the official said when asked if Rice had
read the NIE. Referring to an annex raising doubts about Iraq's nuclear
program, the official said Bush and Rice "did not read footnotes
in a 90-page document. . . . The national security adviser has people
that do that." The annex was boxed and in regular type.
Four days later, Rice's deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, said in a second White
House briefing that he did not mention doubts raised by the CIA about
an African uranium claim Bush planned to make in an October speech (the
accusation, cut from that speech, reemerged in Bush's State of the Union
address). Hadley said he did not mention the objections to Rice because
"there was no need." Hadley said he does not recall ever discussing
the matter with Rice, suggesting she was not aware that the sentence had
Hadley said he could not recall discussing the CIA's concerns about the
uranium claim, which was based largely on British intelligence. He said
a second memo from the CIA protesting the claim was sent to Rice, but
"I can't tell you she read it. I can't tell you she received it."
Rice herself used the allegation in a January op-ed article.
One person who has worked with Rice describes as "inconceivable"
the claims that she was not more actively involved. Indeed, subsequent
to the July 18 briefing, another senior administration official said Rice
had been briefed immediately on the NIE -- including the doubts about
Iraq's nuclear program -- and had "skimmed" the document. The
official said that within a couple of weeks, Rice "read it all."
Bush aides have made clear that Rice's stature is undiminished in the
president's eyes. The fault is one of a process in which speech vetting
was not systematic enough, they said. "You cannot have a clearance
process that depends on the memory of people who are bombarded with as
much information, as much paperwork, as many meetings, as many phone calls,"
one official said. "You have to make sure everybody, each time, actually
reads the documents. And if it's a presidential speech, it has to be done
at the highest levels."
Democrats, however, see a larger problem with Rice and her operation.
"If the national security adviser didn't understand the repeated
State Department and CIA warnings about the uranium allegation, that's
a frightening level of incompetence," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.),
who as the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee has led
the charge on the intelligence issue. "It's even more serious if
she knew and ignored the intelligence warnings and has deliberately misled
our nation. . . . In any case it's hard to see why the president or the
public will have confidence in her office."
Rice, a former Stanford University provost who developed a close bond
with Bush during the campaign, was one of the most outspoken administration
voices arguing that Saddam Hussein posed a nuclear danger to the world.
As administration hard-liners worked to build support for war throughout
the fall and winter, Rice often mentioned the fear that Hussein would
develop a nuclear weapon, saying on CNN on Sept. 8: "We don't want
the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Now that U.S. forces have not turned up evidence of an active nuclear
program in Iraq, the White House is being barraged with allegations from
abroad, and from Democrats on Capitol Hill and on the presidential trail,
that Bush and his aides exaggerated their evidence. Rice, who is responsible
for the White House's foreign policy apparatus, is the official responsible
for how the president and his aides present intelligence to the public.
When the controversy intensified earlier this month with a White House
admission of error, Rice was the first administration official to place
responsibility on CIA Director Tenet for the inclusion in Bush's State
of the Union address of the Africa uranium charge. The White House now
concedes that pinning responsibility on Tenet was a costly mistake. CIA
officials have since made clear to the White House and to Congress that
intelligence agencies had repeatedly tried to wave the White House off
The main issue is whether Rice knew that U.S. intelligence agencies had
significant doubts about a claim made by British intelligence that Iraq
was seeking uranium in Africa. "The intelligence community did not
know at that time or at levels that got to us that this, that there was
serious questions about this report," she said on ABC's "This
Week" on June 8. A month later, on CBS's "Face the Nation,"
she stood by the claim. "What I knew at the time is that no one had
told us that there were concerns about the British reporting. Apparently,
there were. They were apparently communicated to the British."
As it turns out, the CIA did warn the British, but it also raised objections
in the two memos sent to the White House and a phone call to Hadley. Hadley
last Monday blamed himself for failing to remember these warnings and
allowing the claim to be revived in the State of the Union address in
January. Hadley said Rice, who was traveling, "wants it clearly understood
that she feels a personal responsibility for not recognizing the potential
problem presented by those 16 words."
In a broader matter, Rice claimed publicly that the State Department's
Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR, did not take issue with other
intelligence agencies' view that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear program.
"[W]hat INR did not take a footnote to is the consensus view that
the Iraqis were actively trying to pursue a nuclear weapons program, reconstituting
and so forth," she said on July 11, referring to the National Intelligence
Estimate. Speaking broadly about the nuclear allegations in the NIE, she
said: "Now, if there were doubts about the underlying intelligence
to that NIE, those doubts were not communicated to the president, to the
vice president, or to me."
In fact, the INR objected strongly. In a section referred to in the first
paragraph of the NIE's key judgments, the INR said there was not "a
compelling case" and said the government was "lacking persuasive
evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its
nuclear weapons program."
Some who have worked in top national security jobs in Republican and Democratic
administrations support Rice aides' contention that the workload is overwhelming.
"The amount of information that's trying to force itself in front
of your attention is almost inhuman," one former official said. Another
former NSC official said national security advisers often do not read
all of the dozens of NIEs they get each year.
Still, these former officials said they would expect a national security
adviser to give top priority to major presidential foreign policy speeches
and an NIE about an enemy on the eve of a war. "It's implausible
that the national security adviser would be too busy to pay attention
to something that's going to come out of the president's mouth,"
said one. Another official called it highly unlikely that Rice did not
read a memo addressed to her from the CIA. "I don't buy the bit that
she didn't see it," said this person, who is generally sympathetic
In Rice's July 11 briefing, on Air Force One between South Africa and
Uganda, she said the CIA and the White House had "some discussion"
on the Africa uranium sentence in Bush's State of the Union address. "Some
specifics about amount and place were taken out," she said. Asked
about how the language was changed, she replied: "I'm going to be
very clear, all right? The president's speech -- that sentence was changed,
right? And with the change in that sentence, the speech was cleared. Now,
again, if the agency had wanted that sentence out, it would have gone.
And the agency did not say that they wanted that speech out -- that sentence
out of the speech. They cleared the speech. Now, the State of the Union
is a big speech, a lot of things happen. I'm really not blaming anybody
for what happened."
Three days later, then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said
Rice told him she was not referring to the State of the Union address,
as she had indicated, but to Bush's October speech. That explanation,
however, had a flaw: The sentence was removed from the October speech,
In addition, testimony by a CIA official before the Senate Select Committee
on Intelligence two days after Fleischer's clarification was consistent
with the first account Rice had given. The CIA official, Alan Foley, said
he told a member of Rice's staff, Robert Joseph, that the CIA objected
to mentioning a specific African country -- Niger -- and a specific amount
of uranium in Bush's State of the Union address. Foley testified that
he told Joseph of the CIA's problems with the British report and that
Joseph proposed changing the claim to refer generally to uranium in Africa.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett last Monday called that
a "conspiracy theory" and said Joseph did not recall being told
of any concerns.